A Star Called Henry

by Roddy Doyle

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1602

A Star Called Henry represents Roddy Doyle’s departure from fiction in contemporary settings and, in part, from the comic tone that has characterized his work since the late 1980’s. However, in some of his work—Paddy Clark, Ha Ha Ha (1993) and The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1997)—Doyle portrays not only urban poverty but its inherent tragedy, two themes that are important in A Star Called Henry. This novel’s greater innovation lies in its use of historical events—particularly Dublin’s Easter Rising of 1916 and the violence of the years that followed—as a background for its fictional central character, Henry Smart. As the first volume of a proposed historical trilogy, A Star Called Henry covers only the first twenty years of Henry Smart’s life, beginning in 1902 and ending on the eve of the 1921 treaty, which created an independent Ireland except, as it worked out, for the six Protestant northern counties.

This work follows the tradition of the picaresque novel, the episodic adventures of a rogue hero. Thus the novel’s first section is devoted to Henry’s first seven or eight years. He is born to Melody and Henry Smart, a couple doomed by their desperate poverty. Henry is their second son, the first, also Henry, having died in early infancy. This Henry, however, is notable for his glowing health and beauty, qualities that remain with him through his adolescence. Now his mother often shows him the star that she believes represents his brother. In fact, many of Henry’s siblings die, even his favorite little brother, Victor, with whom he makes a sort of life on the streets for several years after their father, a one-legged bouncer in Dolly Oblong’s brothel, abandons the family and their mother sinks into depression and madness.

Henry teaches Victor what he knows of stealing and cadging food; he even gets him into school for a few short days, thanks to the generosity of Miss O’Shea, a teacher rebellious enough to recognize Henry’s ability and to sneak the boys past the school’s regulations. The high point of this time is the sudden appearance of Henry’s father when the boys are about to be trapped by an angry mob after they have disrupted a state procession for Edward VII, on the occasion of his visiting Dublin.

Henry, Sr., sweeps the boys out of the crowd and carries them to safety through the Dublin sewers, a territory he knows well from his work as a hit man. He has found the sewers an excellent place to dispose of bodies, as well as to make his own escapes. The pull of underground water—Dublin’s streams as well as sewers—remains with Henry for the rest of his life and helps him make several close escapes. Henry receives another legacy from his father—the old man’s wooden leg, which he keeps at his side through most of his adventures, a talisman and, more important, a weapon.

The second section is set during the Easter Rising of 1916. Henry has been recruited into the Irish Citizen Army, outfitted (and taught to read) by James Connolly, who has recognized his abilities and who now heads the ragged crew who have taken over the General Post Office. Henry is an able and resourceful fighter (thanks to his years on the streets), but he has no interest in Irish independence. “I didn’t give a shite about Ireland,” he says, but he does feel the excitement of great events, and he likes the violence. As he fires his rifle at the surrounding businesses, he feels as if he is shooting all the possessions denied to him and to all of his class. At the post office, he is present for historic proclamations of independence by national heroes including James Connolly and Patrick Pearse.

Also at the post office he finds his old teacher, Miss O’Shea again. She has left teaching for the life of a revolutionary, although she chafes at the way the men dismiss the women’s abilities out of hand, relegating them to supplying tea and sandwiches. At the very moment the post office undergoes its first bombing, she and Henry are having epic sex in the basement (their coming together is so intense that Henry says her nipples left two pock marks on his forehead for the rest of his life).

The Rising is a military failure; English troops and weapons easily overpower the Irish, although it raises Irish consciousness. Henry remains oblivious to the issues. He moves in with Piano Annie (so named for her habit of playing popular songs on her partners’ backs during lovemaking) and scrounges work on the docks until Annie’s husband returns from the trenches of World War I and Henry himself is brought into the IRA by Jack Dalton. Thus he begins his real career as a terrorist, recruiting youth across the rural countryside and training them in the ways of guerilla warfare. When he and Miss O’Shea find one another again, they marry and become a terrorist team, always accompanied by the elder Henry’s wooden leg. Henry refuses to learn his wife’s first name.

Throughout their activities, however, Henry acts on his own agenda as well. He wants to know more about his father, and whenever he has the opportunity he bribes Granny Nash with books (she often reads two at a time), for she is his sole source of family history. She doles out facts parsimoniously, but gradually he realizes that his father worked not only for the brothel keeper Dolly Oblong but for Alfie Gandon, a thug who has now become involved in Irish politics. His father had imagined that Gandon and Dolly Oblong were really the same person, and was moved by romantic notions of Dolly’s double life, but in fact, Henry realizes, his father had merely been Gandon’s pawn, and when he was no longer useful, Gandon had killed him.

At the same time, Henry has become friends with David Climanis, a Latvian Jew, who seems like one of the last decent men in Dublin. Henry is shocked when Jack Dalton defends the killing of Climanis, claiming he was a spy. The last straw falls when Henry realizes that one of his recruits, Ivan (now called Ivan the Terrible), has become a sort of pirate, using terror to manage his district for his own gain.

Henry concludes that he has been a dupe, the stooge of the power bosses in Dublin who have used him and countless others like him not to promote the cause of independence but to manipulate the cause to further their power. They hold that power by terrorizing the innocent, and Henry and his wife have played into their hands. It is no accident that Alf Gandon, who used Henry’s father before him, has now modified his name to O’Gandúin to appear more Irish, and is said to be running the country from a jail cell.

In the midst of the civil war that follows the creation of the Irish Free State, Henry renounces violence. He says farewell to his infant daughter and to his wife (in jail for terrorism) and strikes out for Liverpool at the age of twenty.

As a character, Henry Smart is an oddly compelling combination of terrorist, lover, and comedian. Despite his quick hand with revolver or wooden leg, Henry maintains a generous heart (that, along with his good looks, accounts for his appeal to women); witness his efforts at the General Post Office to find soldiers’ pay for the destitute wives of men fighting for England in World War I or his fondness for David Climanis and his family. Despite his initial cynicism about the rebellion, he comes to have genuine hopes for the cause and grieves when they are dashed. Despite his braggadocio about his looks and his conquests—both military and amorous—Henry always maintains a central honesty that allows him to see into the heart of things, and always he has a core of good humor that takes the reader with him through blood, poverty, and disillusionment.

Like Doyle’s earlier work, A Star Called Henry is full of the everyday grit of the lives of the poor, the taste of bad food, the odors of Dublin’s sewers and polluted air, the clamorous sound of their voices. Indeed, the re-creation of everyday speech is one of Doyle’s great strengths. It wobbles only when he recounts his thoughts as an infant (difficult to carry off, even with Henry’s exuberant style).

Doyle’s portrayal of the deterioration of the cause of Irish freedom into a sort of power politics played by amoral thugs has been commented on by some reviewers who have noted that such a picture contradicts the usual Irish understanding of their revolution. No people want to see their national heroes portrayed as scoundrels, but in fact the actual historical figures in this novel are rather remote after the General Post Office scenes, and the evils that attend the cause seem to come from the human failings of all the warriors rather than originating with the leaders. Even an ordinary farm boy like Ivan can develop a lust for power in the right circumstances, Doyle seems to suggest, and even the most hardened yobbo of the lot can grow disgusted with himself, get a new suit, and head for Liverpool.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (June 1, 1999): 1741.

Library Journal 124 (August, 1999): 137.

New Statesman 128 (September 6, 1999): 54.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (September 12, 1999): 7.

Publishers Weekly 246 (July 12, 1999): 70.

Time 154 (October 4, 1999): 102.

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